Sharing the South African Experience

Terri Hathaway
Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Presented at the WCD Launch in Uganda

I work with International Rivers Network, and was invited today to observe this gathering here in Uganda. International Rivers has been working for 20 years with NGOs and dam affected communities in the South to amplify the voices of those who bear the true cost of dams. International Rivers is not out to stop development. Rather, we work with local groups to ensure that development planning includes the voices of civil society and affected communities, which results in more sustainable, better–planned projects that share risks and benefits across society. International Rivers’s work has revealed that dams are often presented as a solution without having asked the right questions. International Rivers followed the WCD process closely, and we believe that the WCD recommendations provide a clear path to ensuring that the best development decisions for water and energy needs are made.

Last week, I was in Johannesburg for the 4th and final forum meeting of the South African Multi–Stakeholder Initiative on the World Commission on Dams. Liane Greef is a member of the Coordinating Committee in South Africa, but was unable to attend today to share with you the South African experience. Liane and I prepared the following to share with you today.

Approximately 80 delegates representing government, private sector, NGOs, affected communities, research and financial institutions came together last week in Johannesburg to discuss and to finalize the draft Substantive Report Of The South African Multi–stakeholder Initiative On The WCD Report. What was quite amazing is that during the discussions only two issues were perceived as controversial – that of financial reparations for communities affected by historic dams and the issue binding legal contracts between developers and affected communities. Multi–Stakeholder Working Groups developed a consensual way forward on these issues and the forum gave their consent to the Coordinating Committee to finalize the report. This will be published by December this year.

The Coordinating Committee was congratulated for doing such a good job and the meeting ended on a high note with much emphasis being placed on ensuring that the recommendations would be implemented.

The objectives of the South African Multi–stakeholder Initiative on the WCD were to broadly contextualize the WCD report and to make recommendations on its implementation in South Africa. South Africa is one of the first countries to have conducted a multi–stakeholder process analyzing the WCD in a country context, and what I observed last week was a resounding affirmation by all stakeholders that the WCD is indeed very relevant to South Africa.

I will briefly describe the process and the key milestones.

After the WCD report was released in November 2000, a Multi–Stakeholder Working Group in South Africa came together and spent four months planning the first Multi–Stakeholder Symposium on the WCD. This working group consisted of government, IUCN, the private sector and NGOs, who planned the workshop with equal emphasis from all perspectives, coordinated logistics and raised funds. It was during this period of work that an atmosphere of mutual respect emerged despite differences in perspective. The respect built here was apparent throughout the process.

The actual South Africa Multi–Stakeholder Initiative was formally launched at this first symposium in 2001. The Coordinating Committee met every second month and the broad stakeholder forum met annually for the next three years. Representatives of each of South Africa’s eight identified sectors sat on the Coordinating Committee to ensure that all perspectives would be given an equal voice throughout the Initiative. It was believed that a collaborative effort between organizations that would bring together key decision–makers would be the most powerful way forward for South Africa. The South Africa stakeholders framed their process around the seven strategic priorities outlined in the WCD.

As a first step, the Initiative prepared a scoping report by canvassing opinions from all sides of the debate in order to ensure again that all voices were heard and to establish the parameters of the debate and to highlight areas of agreement and disagreement. The Report detailed the principles and findings of the WCD, trends in South Africa, key issues in South Africa, key debating points, and a possible way forward. This was presented to the second forum meeting in July 2002, together with the proposed work plan. This second Forum approved both the scoping report and the work plan and the Coordinating Committee began working on the substantive report.

An analytical framework was also developed to guide the production of the South African Final Report around the seven strategic priorities:

  • Come to a conclusion on the WCD’s relevance and desirability in South Africa
  • Determine the extent to which it is covered by existing policy, regulation, and legislation
  • Make recommendations
  • Identify any outstanding research needs
  • And use examples from Southern Africa to support the analysis.

The Coordinating Committee in South Africa identified several reasons for their success with the initiative. The South Africa process included:

  • Reasonable and committed participants
  • The belief that WCD improves practices, has much to offer and can be implemented
  • Early adoption of core values and approaches
  • Determination to examine each proposal, and not adopt proposals blindly
  • Determination to build consensus
  • Realization that South Africa could not afford to repeat past mistakes
  • Open and constructive debates
  • Clear process
  • Time for reflection
  • Supportive role played by Dams and Development Project (DDP) and Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC), and
  • Funds for critical elements, including author, attendance costs of disadvantaged groups, and a multi–stakeholder forum.

The report is currently being finalized by the Coordinating Committee. I spoke with many people last week who attended the meetings. What I observed last week was an impressive example of democracy in action. It was a process that empowered all those with a vested interest to come together, exchange views in a constructive way, and find consensus about development issues in the context of South Africa. It is a process that I believe would benefit Uganda as well.

The stakeholders in South Africa did not adopt the WCD report outright. They understood that some WCD recommendations may not apply to them. Instead, they measured it against South African history, current policy and practice, and needs, and are now determining the priority recommendations for South Africa. Similarly, I don’t think the South African report could be adopted exactly and used effectively by any other country. But it does set forth a process that may benefit others to study in order to consider relevance and best practices for going forward. I believe South African stakeholders learned many valuable lessons that could help other WCD processes move forward.

Another important aspect is the importance of having all stakeholders engaged in determining the process. Many processes are now labeling themselves as multi–stakeholder, but often, one sector is holding a workshop and inviting other sectors. This often leads to the organizing sector having undue influence over the agenda and the final results. The South African process provided opportunities for equalizing traditionally unequal power relations and thereby enabling more voices to be heard. While NAPE organized today’s meeting, I hope that representatives of all sectors will take this opportunity to move forward together, to coordinate and plan a process deemed relevant to the Ugandan context.

In closure, I would like to share what the chair of the WCD, Professor Kader Asmal, stated. He said that while some people think the WCD is only for developed countries, they are wrong, it is for the developing countries who can least afford to make the mistakes of the past.